Sacha Veyrier did a detailed breakdown to his UE4 scene Bird Palace and shared the insights into his modeling workflow in Blender and texturing approach using Substance tools.
Hi! My name's Sacha Veyrier, I'm a 22-year-old aspiring 3D environment artist currently living in Paris. I've studied 4 years at a 3D school in Paris before finding Artside's online formation that allowed me to finally specialise in Environment Art. I've previously worked two years at Spiderling Studios on the video game Besiege as a 3D artist.
I have always been an environment lover; architecture, nature, composition, lighting, - you name it – have always been things surrounding me that I'm fascinated with, which subsequently made me interested in studying how the environments surrounding us can tell stories, set moods while being functional.
I've started dabbling in and out of 3D around my high school years where I learned Blender with Andrew Price's immensely helpful Blender Guru tutorials and dove back in it more seriously 3 years ago.
About The Project
This project started as an assignment at Artside with a simple brief; create a game-ready Unreal Engine interior in a realistic style with storytelling elements. My personal goal was to explore something new to push myself out of my comfort zone in terms of architecture and to delve into Byzantine/Middle Eastern-influenced architecture. I think it's something we don't see that often in video games, barring a few notable exceptions such as Horizon's Zero Dawn's Meridian , Prince of Persia or Assassin's creed. Another personal goal was to try implementing trim texturing in an environment. I started skimming through a book I had at home about Islamic architecture, which was really helpful to consolidate my Pureref board. I then went online to gather reference where I stumbled upon the Angawi House located in Jeddah and fell in love with its layout, which made me settle on this final idea; I wanted a large open room with a pool, sunlight bouncing around the room, wooden elements with plants reaching down from the upper floors.
For the scene's structure, I mixed in different references I had, but went for roughly the same layout as the Angawi House while aiming for something less noisy, emphasizing readability and keeping it cozy. One of my references for the coziness was Littlefinger's brothel in Game of Thrones, imitating those little nooks filled with pillows, plants, fruits, and plates. How light shined through the environment was one of the driving factors in deciding how I laid out the architecture in the room, allowing for controlled entry points for the sunlight. The sunlight which was locked early in the blocking allowed me to define a central area that would serve as the building's main place to chill in, a comfy nook filled with pillows and sofas. Looking up orientalist painters such as Jean Léon Gerome and Frederick Arthur Bridgman were also good references for architecture, details, and textures.
Most of the layout, lighting, and set-dressing choices were made in order to answer questions: who lived there? Were they wealthy? What were their tastes? Was this a permanent home, or a secondary home? Was it a space that was intimate, or a space where you received guests? What materials would be available in the region where the scene is located?
Modeling in Blender
Modeling this scene was pretty straightforward as most of my models have pretty basic shapes, the most important part being picking a fixed grid size and having your modular elements stick to it as that would allow me to be as flexible as possible later on to change things in my environment. Having this kit early on allowed me to experiment with the layout and lock the blockout early.
For the few models that had complex shapes, I combined Blender's modifiers to allow for more flexibility and control.
For shapes such as arches, I combined Blender's spin tool as well as the mirror to build up the arches as seen in this example.
For repeating patterns such as the blue arches we can see in the main shot, I used Blender's array system and bend deformer to set up the main shape while keeping the repeating shape in a state where it's still easy to change.
One crucial thing that I had was an export script, that allowed me to export my meshes straight to ue4 with a single button press, without having to manually place them at the center of the scene and navigate the export menus. This script is an edit of a previous version of an export script made by my very talented friend Tino Burot for a project we worked on together at my previous school with an amazing team. This script really eased up the process and the very frequent back and forth between Blender and Unreal Engine.
This scene uses a few different trim textures and one tileable, as my personal challenge was to limit my material library and not to use Substance Painter. One thing I do pretty early with the props that will use trims is to assign colors to the trimsheet once I've decided how many parts I will need.
Blender's ultimate trim addon was really useful to quickly set up the UVs to match the trim sheets, and using insomniac ultimate trim technique with setting up bevels between every trim allowed for nice bevel on low poly flat geo, as we can see in this lantern example, without any bakes or additional geometry, we get fake bevels.
The perks of using trims are the possibility of adding new props after the texturing has been done, making it less “destructive” than a full unique UV/texture/bake workflow, which can be pretty useful with non-hero props, although it can sacrifice “uniqueness” and localized details, which is something I'll explain how I tried to fix later on.
For my pillows, I used a custom setup where I baked the general folds and normals from Marvelous Designer with Marmoset and then did the texturing on a secondary UV set with trims, as seen in this example. This allowed me to add variations to the pillows extremely quickly.
For the other trims, I model the high poly in Blender and bake its normals onto a plane in Substance Designer, where I start texturing each trim band with the help of its procedural noises and nodes.
For the more abstract geometric pattern, you can find on some props such as the small metal box containers, I made them in Substance Designer using a mix of the shape mapper node and the cartesian to polar nodes. This gave me limited control over the specifics of the pattern but allowed me to quickly run iterations and create abstract circular patterns.
One of the limitations of not going through a sculpting process and baking it to a texture would be lacking localized details – leaks, damaged edge/corners, and such. Luckily, that's where normal edge decals and standard decals come in. Following Leonardo Iezzi's fantastic edge decal tutorial, I made 4 convex edge decals, 2 concave ones, and three corner decals, allowing me to break that “3D blocking” and adding variations, where geometry bevels would have felt too “linear”. This helped tremendously as my trim/tileable only workflow was missing that “deliberate” and localized detail touch.
Then, I used various leaks and dirt decals to better blend different parts of the environments, such as the bottom of walls and corners where you would naturally find dirt in the occluded crevices. In my shader for the trims, I added material layering through the UE4 material layer system to add variety through vertex painting, to break up the repeating trims. As for lighting, I tried to keep it simple, relying on my main light coming from the sky, but I also set up low-intensity point lights in the alcoves as bounce lighting was not sufficient to make these areas brighter. One thing I did to fake caustic reflections inside the pool and on the walls adjacent to it was using spotlights with a light function panning overlapping caustic textures.
The water material is pretty straightforward, it uses a translucent reflective material with slow panning noise normal maps to create subtle ripples and distort the reflection. As the water fills up a good portion of the final image, I used a planar reflection to get more accurate reflections and not use screen-space reflections.
One fun challenge to sell the mood in the final video of the scene was adding birds, which was an idea and challenge that my fellow Artside classmate and friend Lola Serre gave me. To set that up, I quickly modelled low poly birds, applied flat colors through vertex painting, rigged/animated it to have a wing-flapping loop animation, and then finally made them follow a spline in the engine. As these birds flew really quickly in the scene, I did not spend much time modeling or texturing them, especially since they would be affected by UE4's default motion blur.
Adding moving stuff, such as subtle foliage movement, lanterns swinging to their ropes, birds flying helped me make the scene more alive and 'peaceful'.
Post-process wise, I did not use much besides the standard SSAO, vignette and a custom sharpen post-process material. I'm a big fan of achieving most of the mood color-wise through the least possible amount of post-processing, as sometimes they can feel too cheap or common – not every scene needs an inappropriate amount of chromatic aberrations, or over the top color correction to fix things that can be achieved through lighting and texturing alone.
All in all, it was a very fun project to work on, exploring an architectural style that's not used too often, and challenging myself to restrict the scene to a particular workflow to understand it better. I wanted to thank the Artside team and my classmates for their help and feedback which were invaluable in building this project!
I'll keep on exploring and refining my skills, explore different styles and workflows to be as ready as I can to land a job in the industry, which is why having teachers that are active artists in the videogame industry in the majors studios is a great help as a student, to be up to date with the industry standards and have professional contacts.
Thank you very much for the opportunity of doing this interview, I hope the breakdown was helpful!